Article originally published on 21.11.22
It was a racing weekend where those that didn't run made nearly as many headlines as those that did, but trainer Dan Skelton was still left purring after the biggest win of his career to date.
Unseasonably fast ground at Ascot on Saturday meant a raft of withdrawals, Constitution Hill amongst them, but it was Protektorat's form on the track at Haydock that grabbed the headlines as A Plus Tard failed to fire.
Here's our review of the weekend's racing action.
The Betfair Chase was anticipated to be very much an opportunity for last year's winner and the Cheltenham Gold Cup scorer A Plus Tard to begin his season with a win but that wasn't how it went in Haydock's big Grade 1.
Rachael Blackmore admitted she was never content with A Plus Tard, who stopped very quickly once the race got serious after the fourth-last fence.
Protektorat went ahead and powered to an 11-length win for brothers Dan and Harry Skelton, the biggest win to date for the former since he took out his license nine years ago.
Skelton of course is a former assistant to Paul Nicholls and knows all about winning big races, but it was quite something to it for himself in a race he'd targeted.
"I believe in the horse and although I knew it was going to be a hard task facing the winning Gold Cup team - and obviously they've had an off day - I always felt at his age he was very entitled to improve," he said.
"He's had three tries at the trip and the progression has been there as he's got older, stronger and bigger. I'm not going to say he'll step out of this and improve again because I had him very ready for today."
Protektorat is now 8/1 for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham on 17th March, while reigning champ A Plus Tard is after his trainer Henry De Bromhead suggested his Haydock effort was 'obviously too bad to be true'.
Willie Mullins won another Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday though the leading trainer suggested State Man wouldn't have got connections of Honeysuckle or Constitution Hill running scared with this performance.
Winner of the County Hurdle at Cheltenham and a Grade 1 novice in the spring, State Man took the step into open Grade 1 company in his stride.
He jumped quite deliberately at times but quickened away from stablemate Sharjah in read fashion once Paul Townend asked for his effort.
"Looking at that I don't think Henry [de Bromhead] or Michael Buckley or Nicky Henderson are too worried, but we are going to improve too," Mullins said after recording his 12th success in the €120,000 event.
"His jumping is probably not Champion Hurdle class yet but that will come. I think in a bigger field with more competition that will come. He looks a real hurdler to me."
Constitution Hill's planned comeback at Ascot on Saturday was vetoed by Nicky Henderson, who felt ground conditions were too quick for his rising star.
Constitution Hill was joined by the likes of L'homme Presse and Edwardstone as non-runners for intended targets at Ascot and Henderson doubled down on his decision 24 hours after the event.
"I'm looking at Constitution Hill trotting around in front of me and he's 100 per cent sound and well, and I can tell you that would not have been the case had he run at Ascot yesterday," said Henderson. "It was good to firm - it's as simple as that.
"I wouldn't ever take a chance on that ground with a horse like him - he’s a horse of a lifetime, an incredibly special horse. I wouldn't ever think of working him on that ground so I would never run him on it."
His absence left the honourable Goshen - in the Champion Hurdle market - to land the Coral Hurdle for Gary Moore at Ascot having returned to hurdling after a lacklustre attempt over fences at the track last month.
"He's a special horse to me, he's a special horse to Steve [Packham, owner] and he deserves to win a decent prize like that - although I was glad Constitution Hill came out!" said Moore.
Hitman enjoyed a dominant success in the 2m5½f graduation chase at Haydock Park on Saturday afternoon, leaving Britain's champion trainer Paul Nicholls convinced he now has two leading King George contenders on his roster for Boxing Day.
Bravemansgame won the bet365 Charlie Hall at Wetherby last month and is 5/4 market leader for the 26th December showpiece at Kempton, but Hitman's pleasing display at Haydock saw him trimmed to for a contest Nicholls has won a record 12 times.
The Ditcheat handler suggested stable jockey Harry Cobden will have some food for thought in the coming weeks.
"For a six-year-old rated 160, we've been patient with him and he's run some really good races for a young horse and is just becoming the finished article now.
"He's got an entry for the King George and I'd say that's where we'll be heading. I might give a couple of other entries, but I'd say the plan would be to go to the King George and Harry has got to make his mind up whether he rides Bravemansgame or this fella."